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Enigmatic Endgame: Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (2013) – DVD/Blu-ray review

January 14, 2014 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Man vs machine – specifically, performance-based director vs radical formal technique.  Sadly, machine wins, as Bujalski’s overstated bid for paranoid chills eclipses his trademark collegial warmth.

Computer Chess
(Andrew Bujalski, 2013)

When I was younger, I was a member of a local Doctor Who group that had a penchant for creating their own time-travel adventures on home-made video. While put together with real resourcefulness, wit and passion, the overriding memory is of their aesthetic: amateur epics full of awkward pauses, mismatched lighting, variable sound and glitches in the videotape itself. It was the very opposite of a professional film… and yet here is Computer Chess, a ‘proper’ piece of cinema which borrows the video equipment of the early 1980s to recreate that tangible ambience.

Andrew Bujalski’s decision is a gimmick, for sure, but one with a solid formal and emotional rationale. The film charts a tournament amongst programmers immersed in the quest to make a computer that can become a chess grandmaster – something that looks incredibly quaint to today’s eyes but without which the innovations of the past few decades would be unthinkable. The same applies to the filming techniques, whose studied lack of gloss forces the audience to confront that very shift in how life is lived.  Nothing dates faster than the state-of-the-art, so how silly will the accroutements of the 2010s look in thirty years’ time?

The emotional side comes from the Proustian rush of seeing something that looks tangibly old; for me, especially, the dramatis personae of geeks, with their stilted conversation and shyness, looks like my old Doctor Who group could have filmed it. This is ‘period’ cinema to the nth power, which looks more convincingly of its era that any costume drama ever could because Bujalski has so comprehensively thought through the implications, from the typed-in captions to the asymmetrical split-screen.

Even when it drops the mockumentary facade to produce a filmmaking flourish, it has the self-consciously enthusiastic bravura of an amateur production. One tracking shot is designed simply to draw attention to the name badges worn by the tournament’s attendees, while a particularly tech-heavy conversation is symbolised with an editing wig-out so extreme that a ‘professional’ editor would advise against it. It rests on the thinnest of thin lines between intentional pastiche and coming across as… well, a bit amateurish.

Clearly, Bujalski knows what he is doing, but the attention to detail at a technical level isn’t quite matched by a narrative that oscillates between observational comedy, blunt metaphor and an abstruse experimentation… and like his character, Bujalski overreaches in ambition.  Given his mumblecore roots, the director is at his most comfortable and confident in the first of three: there are some very funny conversations carried off by deadpan performances from mostly unknowns (and even the biggest name, Dazed And Confused‘s Wiley Wiggins, is scarcely recognisable).

Where Bujalski stumbles is in the didactic comparison with a religious group staying in the same hotel. It’s a valid device to compare & contrast the logical, asexual world of the programmers with more spiritual, tactile concerns – especially given that the two are the yin and yang of modern America – but it never quite gels dramatically, despite an agonising piece of cringe as the gawkiest of the programmers finds himself propositioned by a horny middle-aged couple.

It also signals the limits of the film’s realism, as Bujalski allows the various subplots to peter out amidst symbolic dream sequences and alterations to the video aesthetic.  There’s a tacit criticism here of how cinema has chosen a more impersonal future; and, if nothing else, this is a defiant, bittersweet celebration of ‘indie’ with its Quixotic underdogs busy selling their souls to a homogenised, mechanical future.  Yet as the film gets caught in its own programming loop, rapidly abandoning collegial warmth for Lynch-esque paranoia and a Persona-era metaphor for creative destruction (the image burning itself out looking into the sun), the film loses something of its likeability – certainly compared to those vintage Doctor Who performances.

Computer Chess is released on Monday 20th September on DVD and Blu-ray… although I can’t think of a film less well-equipped for the latter format.  Still, this being Masters Of Cinema, the extras package is stunning, taking full advantage of the access to a contemporary film.

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